USDA on top of potential disease risk


Perhaps 16th century English soldier and poet Sir Philip Sidney said it best: “How violently do rumors blow the sails of popular judgments!”

When we’re scared, nervous, angry, uncertain or simply ignorant of the truth, it’s easy to latch on to rumors from the milk hauler, mother-in-law or mailman as truth.

I would be lying if I said foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease do not scare me. We have been fortunate to be able to watch the livestock tragedies in the United Kingdom and Europe on television from the comfort of our recliners. We’re removed from the horror; it can’t happen to us.

But U.S. consumers are now questioning the safety of our food chain. Some are saying they’re not going to eat beef any more. And what about the rumors we’re hearing about cattle quarantined in Texas?

The only way I know to battle rumors is to arm myself with the truth. We received a thorough fact sheet on the German-imported cattle being held in Texas. Here’s what we know.

Twenty-nine head of cattle were imported legally into Texas between February 1996 and September 1997. Eight others went to Colorado, one to California, one to Illinois. In a separate shipment, two head were imported from Belgium to Minnesota.

In 1997, when Belgium had its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, the USDA quarantined the cattle.

(Side note: Although Germany had BSE-positive animals in 1992, 1994 and 1997, all were imported animals and it wasn’t until last November that Germany had domestic cattle affected by the disease. To date, 47 domestic animals in Germany have tested positive.)

Back to the U.S. cattle. None have shown signs of BSE. Four of the Texas animals have already been destroyed and tested, with negative results for BSE. The eight in Colorado and one in California have also been destroyed and tested, with negative results for BSE.

The remaining 21 German-imported cattle in Texas are still under quarantine, but will be euthanized and tested. The carcasses will be incinerated and the meat will not enter the food chain.

Four animals from Great Britain remain under quarantine in Vermont, likewise the two from Belgium in Minnesota.

The USDA has also double-checked all import records to make sure no other high-risk imported animals are in the United States. The United States has banned UK cattle and meat products since 1989, but as a further precaution, the USDA has traced nearly 500 head of cattle from Great Britain that were imported between 1981 and 1989. No signs of BSE of positive test results were found in these animals.

I am confident that our government is doing everything it can to prevent this and other livestock diseases from entering our borders – and, in the event one of these diseases should enter the United States, will do everything it takes to contain it.

Livestock producers should step their own vigilance and onfarm biosecurity measures.